Posts Tagged ‘Biblical interpretation’

Reading Proverbs 31

November 9, 2014

If you read books or articles about how to read the Bible, one thing that is always mentioned is “the plain reading of the text”. A plain reading is just what you think it is- the text means what it says.We take the text at face value.  For example, “Jesus wept” means Jesus wept.  On the other hand, a plain reading may not work as well for when the psalmist writes that the trees clap their hands. Trees don’t have hands, a literal reading doesn’t make sense. We know that poetry requires a different sort of reading and interpretation.

None of this is news. The church has always held that there may be a variety of faithful ways to read a particular portion of the Bible. Actually this idea doesn’t begin with the church; Judaism has long embraced the idea that there are various ways of reading scripture.

It makes sense to me that we ought to, from time to time, reassess the texts that often receive a plain reading. Might there be another faithful way to read?

This brings us to Proverbs 31: 10-31. Take a moment and read it. What is it about?

If you clicked on the link, you received some interpretive “help” from the editors of the NRSV. They give these verses a title- Ode to a Capable Wife.  If you looked at some other translation your probably also received some interpretive “help”. Such as “The Competent Wife”, or “The Woman who Fears the Lord”, or “In Praise of a Capable Wife”. Perhaps the editors of your particular version offered these titles. Description of a Worthy Woman”. The Wife of Noble Character”.”The Virtuous Wife”. “Hymn to a Good Wife”. These titles are additions by the editors of the particular Bible you use. They were not, ever, part of the original text. They have been added to be helpful. The goal is to give the reader some orientation to what they are about to read.

These titles reflect a literal reading of the text but is a literal reading the only or the most helpful way to read this text? Perhaps these titles actually don’t help us think more deeply about the text.

So what do you think? What questions do you bring to these verses?

The first question we might have is, does this text define what women must be? Or is it meant to describe the reality of women? Or is it meant to open up possibilities for women? Are women being held to impossible standards or are they offered the opportunity to flourish?

Is it significant that the person in these verses is a women? Does the use of female nouns and pronouns mean this text only for women?  Consider texts that have male nouns and pronouns. Are women automatically excluded from them? How do we decide who a text is written for?

Earlier in Proverbs (see chapters 1, 8 and 9), Wisdom is personified as a woman. Is it possible that the woman of Proverbs 31 is also wisdom? Could this be a text that describes the life of a wise person?

The Hebrew word used in these verses can be translated as “wife”, “woman” or “female”. Since the Hebrew word is less precise and more flexible than English, the translators have to make some decisions about which English word is more appropriate. Does using “wife” instead of “woman” or “woman” rather than “wife” make a difference to you? Does it significantly change the meaning of these verses?

There is a way in which asking these questions makes reading Proverbs 31 more difficult. But it also makes the text much more interesting. At least, that’s what I think. I’d like to know, what do you think?


Edited on November 12 in response to the helpful comments of a reader.




Reading Ruth

November 1, 2014

I had the opportunity to lead an group of folks in a discussion of the Book of Ruth.  It’s not very long, Just 85 verses. It has a well known passage:

“Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”   Ruth 1:16-17 KJV

Ruth is one of those books that many of us think we know.  I mean, how much is there really to know about this book?

More than you might think.  And more that one blog post can cover.  So, lets just think about this.

Did you know that the book of Ruth is located in one place in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and a different place in the Septuagint? It’s true.

In the Old Testament, Ruth is located between the books of Judges and 1 Samuel. This means Ruth is placed among the historical books of the Bible. In the Tanakh, (Hebrew Bible), Ruth is part of  the Ketuvim  (Writings) along with Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther among other texts.

Do you think the location of the book of Ruth affects the way we read and think about it? If we consider Ruth as “simply” a historical book, how does that influence our reading of it?

If we read Ruth as history, do we keep the story at arm’s length? Do we read it as a report about “them” rather than containing insights about “us”?

What if we think about Ruth as “more” than historical? Can we or should we read it as something like a parable?  If we do read Ruth as a sort of parable, what is it’s point? Who, in the story, are we to identify with?

Are we Naomi, the bitter expat? Forced to leave home because of a famine, she returns without husband or sons. When she returns, how will her former community receive her?

Are we Ruth, the foreigner? Widowed, childless and from a country that has been enemies with Israel, Ruth gives up nationality, family ties and her religion to stay with Ruth.

Are we Boaz the well established head of the family? Comfortable, respected and secure. What is his responsibility to a poor widowed woman? What is his responsibility to a poor widowed foreign woman?

The book of Ruth was most likely written around the time of the return from Exile. Some Israelites were returning from their time away in a foreign country. Some Israelites brought their foreign born wives and children with them.  Some Israelites had not been deported to Babylon and had stayed on the land.

What happens when these groups of people encounter each other?

Or we might wonder, what should happen when these groups of people encounter each other?

History or parable?

Parable presented as history?

History presented as parable?

Can we decide which it is? But perhaps more importantly, should we decide which it is? Can Ruth be both history and parable?

What do you think?




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